The journey from Tabriz towards Tehran reveals some incredible scenery. We travel along a sturdy road through a stunning mountain pass. Groves of now bare apple trees are dwarfed by smooth snow covered hills. A chocolate coloured river flowing with steady stream of melting winter ice seems to follow us as we motor along it’s stony banks. On the other side a bright white midday sun shines on light brown clay, which is covering patches of rust coloured rock. Everywhere there are huge mountain peaks jutting into the pure blue sky. Few shadows are cast. Textures are sharp. Colours are blinding. There is contrast in everything. Solid mud huts, strong brick homes that are the same colour as the earth pass by as we enter a more urban area. I have absolutely no idea where we are. All that I know is that we are heading for the town of Soltenayeh where we are due to have lunch.
All forty-three of us sit in a large dining hall and with great surprise our food appears in no more than a few minutes. What’s more suppressing is that it’s pretty good. Chicken kebabs, paper like flat bread, some kind of barley soup, followed by a bottle of Iranian cola called Zim Zam. Soltenayeh comes and goes. A charming little town, which was built on the production and exportation of copper wire. The further east we travel it becomes clearer that there are parts of Iran that are seriously underdeveloped. Most of the truck and haulage vehicles are 30-year-old hand-me-downs from Soviet Russia. In many areas there are more garages than houses. Presumably to maintain the hundreds of thousands of aging vehicles which occupy the Iranian roads. Agricultural machinery looks ancient, and slow. Almost all of the construction sites look like the workmen have downed tools and left long ago. In some small towns you could be forgiven for thinking you were back sometime in the late 1970’s. Progress here is painfully slow. In many ways it looks like a nation cracking under it’s own weight. Frozen in time at the birth of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
We enter Tehran late in the afternoon. As our luck would have it, we hit rush hour traffic. Again as always, we slowly make our way towards the hotel. A quick glimpse from my bedroom window reveals a sea of dust coloured buildings reaching into the far off distance. Down on the ground the city comes alive. I walk less than a hundred meters down a busy main street road and already I have a small audience of people asking me questions on everything from English literature to Golf. I can tell these people aren’t merely practicing their English on me. They’re extremely friendly, and genuinely interested in my culture and way of life. I walk about a mile down the road in a bit of a daze. There’s so much to see here and I’m painfully aware that the bus departs first thing next morning. I try my best to take it all in. I pass by dozens of shops selling all kinds of multi-coloured fabric, young women wearing Dolce and Gabana jeans and Puma runners underneath their black dresses. Their decorated scarves are as far back as can be. Ice cream parlours, camera shops, men’s tailors, the likes of which you’d see in any European city.
The next morning we’re up at the crack of dawn. Our tour leader Vali has a days worth of sightseeing crammed into three hours. We start with a mosque, then the Ministry of Forgiven affairs, followed by a walk through a graveyard of the Iranian veterans of the Iran Iraq war, then a visit to the tomb of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Imam Khomaini. It’s reported that one million people lost their lives during this conflict. Some say the figure is a lot higher. Graves are lined in all directions. They stretch as far as the eye can see. Most gravestones have vivid pictures of the young men that lay there. Some have glass caskets holding small personal belongings. Their families still visit and tend to the plots regularly. I stood next to a middle-aged woman who kneeled at her son’s resting place as she washed the white stone. Imam Khomaini’s resting place was quite different. A truly massive building boasting seven minarets soaring 90 meters into the sky, god knows how many thousands of meters of heated marble flooring, green velvet to beat the band. Almost twenty years later and this super structure still isn’t finished. As boarded the bus I couldn’t help thinking how these two sites were inextricably linked.
I left Iran heading towards Pakistan I couldn’t help wondering what kind of country Iran would be if it didn’t have so many sanctions imposed on it. Not just economic sanctions by the UN and America but also humanitarian sanctions imposed by it’s own leaders both religious and governmental. A country abundantly rich with vast natural resources where the youth perpetually struggle to find descent work. A nation blessed with an unrivalled culture and beauty hidden away from the rest of the world.